Yesterday (1 July 2021, the Feast of Pope Gregory X), I received a copy of St Jacob of Sarug’s Homily on Samson, trans. Dana Miller, edited with notes and an introduction by the late Sr Mary T. Hansbury (Gorgias Press, 2021). It is a welcome addition to any Maronite library. The insight of Samson as a type of Christ is quite remarkable, But first, who was Samson? His story is told in the Old Testament Book of Judges. It begins with his father, Manoah, who is living in Israel some time before the year 1000BC, when the Israelites were offending God, who allowed the Philistines to dominate them for a while.
Manoah’s wife was barren, but angel appeared to her to tell her that she would conceive and have a son (that is, that she would not need to adopt a son). The angel told her not to drink any wine or alcohol, or to eat anything unclean. From the time of his conception, the child was to be a Nazirite, and so his mother was told not to allow any razor to touch his head (meaning, his hair should not be cut). The word “nazir” is cognate with our word “nidr” for a vow. The original meaning of the word is “to consecrate.” This is the first use of the word: Samson is the first known Nazirite; but it came to be used of a person who was consecrated to live a life of holiness whether for all of some of the Nazirite’s life. In other words, the life of a Nazirite was to be a life in this world but regulated by a personal dedication to God, which would be shown by certain restrictions (e.g. not to cut one’s hair). She told Manoah that a “man of God” who “looked like an angel,” had appeared, and what he had said. Manoah asked that the man might come again, which he did, and confirmed his earlier words. When Manoah asked him his name, the angel replied: “You must not ask for my name; it is unknowable!” (Judges 13:1-18)
Manoah made an offering to the Lord of a kid (a young goat), and: “As the flames leaped up from the altar toward the sky, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flames of the altar, while Manoah and his wife looked on; and they flung themselves on their faces on the ground.” (Judges 13:19-20). A little later, the woman had a son whom she named Samson. We are told: “The boy grew up and the Lord blessed him. The spirit of the Lord first moved him in the encampment of Dan …” (Judges 13:24-25). This divine blessing and visitation of the Spirit is unique to this point, although it is to be found again, especially with St John the Baptist.
When he was a young man, saw a young Philistine woman, whom he desired as his wife. When he went down to the area where she lived, he was attacked by a lion, but: “The spirit of the Lord gripped him, and he tore him asunder with his bare hands …” (Judges 14:1-6). Samson spoke with the woman, who pleased him, and he returned the following year to marry her. There he saw the lion’s skeleton, and inside it, was a swarm of bees which had made a hive, from which Samson took and ate a handful of honey, and shared some of it with his parents. (Judges 14:7-9). They had a wedding feast, and Samson posed a riddle to some of the wedding guests: “Out of the eater came something sweet to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.” If they could guess the right answer, he would give them some valuable clothing, but if they could not, they would give the clothing to him. The men asked his wife to get the answer from him, and she nagged him until he explained it to her. They used that information to answer Samson’s riddle, and he realised that it was his wife who had given them the clue. But he still had to give the men the valuable clothing, so: “The spirit of the Lord gripped him. He went down to Ashkelon (a Philistine city) and killed thirty of its men. He stripped them and gave the sets of clothing to those who had answered the riddle.” The wife then left him and married one of the men. (Judges 14:15-20).
There then follow some rather difficult passages, based on ancient customs, in which Samson takes vengeance on his former wife and her family, and they in turn were killed by other Philistines: this is where he ties torches to the tails of foxes and sets them loose in the fields, where the crops are burned. (Judges 15:1-8) The Philistines then come for Samson, and when the men of Judah asked him why he had caused these problems, with the Philistines who were their overlords, Samson replies: “As they did to me, so I did to them.” (Judges 15:9-11). But the Judahites persuaded him to allow himself to be tied up and delivered to the Philistines. The Philistines came out shouting, when they saw Samson, but “the spirit of the Lord gripped him, and the ropes on his arms became like flax that catches fire; the bonds meted off his hands. he came upon the fresh jawbone of an ass, and he picked it up; and with it he killed a thousand men.” (Judges 15:12-15) After this, Samson was very thirsty, he called on the Lord: “You Yourself have granted this great victory through your servant; and now I must die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” So God split open the ground, and caused water to flow, which Samson drank to regain his strength. Samson then led Israel for 20 years. (Judges 15:16-20)
I will not go into details, but Samson slept with a Philistine prostitute from Gaza, and when the Philistines planned to ambush him, he used his preternatural strength to tear down and carry off their city gates. He fell in love with a woman named Delilah, and the Philistines asked her to find out from him the secret of his strength. (Judges 16:1-5) She asked him, and he gave her a false answer. She used what he had told her, and the Philistines came for him, but he had his strength. Something similar happened three times: in each instance he tells her that if X. is done he will become weak, then X. is done to him, and the Philistines come to kill him. It is worth remembering this. (Judges 16:6-14) Delilah nags at him until he is “wearied to death,” and he tells her about being a Nazirite, and that if his hair was cut he would become “as weak as an ordinary man.” (Judges 16:15-17) Delilah sensed that this was the truth. She sent for the Philistines, she “lulled him to sleep on her lap,” and had his hair cut. When the Philistines came, Samson did not realise what had happened: “For he did not know that the Lord had departed from him ..” (Judges 16:18-20)
The Philistines then came, bound him, and gouged his eyes out. They took him to Gaza, and put him to work as a slave. The Philistines bragged that their god Dagan had delivered Samson to them, but meanwhile, his hair was growing back. The Philistines, to mock Samson, called him in to their temple to sport (perhaps to dance) for them. Samson had the boy who was leading him to place him between the main support pillars. He then called on the Lord to give him the strength to take revenge on the Philistines, and said “Let me die with the Philistines.” And he pulled the temple down: the number of people who joined him in death outnumbered those whom he had killed during his life. (Judges 21-30)
The final word of the Samson narrative is that his brothers came and buried him in the tomb of his father Manoah, after he had led Israel for twenty years. (Judges 16:31) There are many lessons here, but in the next instalment, we shall find the surprising insights of St Jacob of Sarug into it.